The Secret History of the British Motor Car: Part 3 - Cowley gets its big break
CHAIN-SMOKING ex-cycle mechanic William Morris, who lived to be 85, was an incurable hypochondriac. In later life, even though he had become a lord and one of the richest men in England - and given millions to medical research - he continued to embarrass his executives by testing his urine samples for imagined diabetes symptoms in his threadbare office in the old Military College in the Oxford suburb of Cowley, across the road from his mighty motor works. One day, when a Ministry of Supply contract worth £6 million had been laid on his desk for signature, he accidentally dropped the sample jar and a warm cocktail of urine and copper sulphate flooded across the document. But there was nothing illusory about Morris's business skills. His rise to fame as Britain's premier motor manufacturer began in the early 1890s when, aged 16, he set up as a bicycle repairer in his father's garden shed, after being refused a sixpence-a-week wage rise by his employer, an Oxford cycle agent. William Morris's rise as Britain's premier motor manufacturer began in the early 1890s when he set up as a bike repairer in a garden shed By 1901 he had his own shop in Oxford High Street. He was soon selling cars and supplanted the city's outdated tram service with a fleet of motor buses. But his big ambition was to make motor cars. The demand for small economy cars from 1910 on was remarkable, though the introduction of a graduated road tax in Lloyd George's 1909 "People's Budget" was only partly the cause. The demand for personal mobility was unstoppable, and dozens of small companies flocked to fill the demand. There was a short-lived boom in "cyclecars" that tried to bridge the gap between motorbike and car, but gradually "big cars in miniature" began to take over. With £25,000 backing from Lord Macclesfield, Morris conceived a light car entirely made from bought-in components. It was a shrewd move: other manufacturers who insisted on doing things themselves were forced to cut corners and ended up with inferior products. The new Morris-Oxford car had only one literal shortcoming: its two-seater body was tailored round Morris and his main agent, Gordon Stewart, who were both little men; normal-sized drivers found it an extremely tight fit. It was the most successful of the 120-odd light cars and cyclecars on the British market in 1914. Most makes proved short-lived: there was a major obstacle to their survival, and it was a four-letter word beginning with "F". Ford of Detroit had been selling cars in Britain since 1904, and the company opened its first factory outside North America in Manchester's Trafford Park in October 1911 to build the Model T. And when Ford set Europe's first moving production line rolling in 1914, its output of well over 8,000 cars that year was more than the next five major British companies combined. Morris had grown remarkably, but was stil1 only assembling 30 cars a week. Ford's predominance was simply explained: at £125, the "Tin Lizzy" was cheaper than all but the crudest cyclecars, yet was a full-sized car backed by the biggest manufacturer in the world. Since most of the mechanical parts of the Ford were imported from Detroit, much of the motoring press adopted ostrich tactics and simply ignored the best-selling car on the market and the hundreds of jobs it had brought. When war broke out, Chancellor Reginald McKenna introduced a 33.3 per cent tax on imported cars and parts, giving the British industry the tariff protection that free trade peacetime had failed to provide. The McKenna duties also increased the cost of Morris's popular new Cowley model, built from cheaper imported American components; when its engine was taken out of production in Detroit in 1919, Morris bought the design and built it in the former Hotchkiss munitions factory in Coventry. When the postwar slump saw sales collapse in 1920, Morris copied a risky tactic that Ford had tried in the USA and dramatically slashed prices. Sales rose from 1,932 cars in 1920 to 3,077 the next year (and kept on increasing). Profits rose too. Sales of small-engined cars like the Morris were further aided by the sharp increase of road tax to £1 per rated horsepower in 1920. The 11.9hp Morris fared much better than the cheaper 22.5hp Ford, which was taxed the same as cars costing 10 times as much. It was blatant protectionism: the Government and industry still regarded the Manchester-built Ford as American, even though most of its components were now British-made, and Morris output overtook Ford in 1924, when 33,000 cars were built at Cowley. It would be 40 years before Ford regained sales leadership. The road tax increase also scuppered the Austin company's one-model policy based on a 3.6-litre American-type 20hp car; the company operated in receivership for a while, a more saleable 12hp model had to be hastily introduced, and Sir Herbert Austin tried unsuccessfully to sell his company to Henry Ford. As a private venture, Herbert Austin designed the tiny Austin Seven in the billiard room of his house, and it saved his company. But Morris's biggest rival was the Clyno company from Wolverhampton, long famed for its motorbikes. Clyno brought out a 10.8hp car in 1922 which was marketed at Morris price levels. Even though Clyno output lay a long way behind Morris, it was seen as a threat. Part of Clyno's secret, it seems, was that it was able to get hold of advance copies of Morris's catalogues and rapidly uprate their specifications to offer cars that were better equipped for the same money. But this made their profit margin a lottery, a risky strategy which came unstuck when Morris's ex- journalist publicity chief Miles Thomas made sure they obtained a specially-printed dummy catalogue with ruinously low prices. This was not a difficult task, for Morris, like Henry Ford, now owned every aspect of his car's production, including the print works which produced all his publicity material. Clyno, who had already overstretched itself building a huge new factory, had also introduced a 9hp model to forestall the planned Morris 8hp economy car. Fooled into thinking the little Morris would come on the market at an unprecedented £100, Clyno rushed out a "Century" model; it broke them. The Morris 8 appeared as a 1929 model at a viable £125, shortly before Clyno sank for ever under the burden of the "Cemetery" Nine: and it was not until the chimes of midnight rang in the year 1931 that Morris at last unveiled his stripped-to-the-bone £100 Eight at last. It sold poorly.
Written By: David Burgess-Wise
Article Date: Feb 06, 1996
Article Date: Feb 06, 1996